The very nature of the college helpdesk poses some intersting problems and dichotomies in terms of employee demographics and support structure. More often than not, colleges and universities have chosen to employ student workers in their helpdesks, providing currently enrolled students with an opportunity to gain valuable work experience in a customer service-heavy environment and to earn some spending money or work study credit. At the same time, the school benefits from the relatively low cost of paying students as compared with professional IT staff members.
The system, on one hand, appears to be a highly desirable one that benefits all, yet there are certain pitfalls, as with any management position, that can easily undermine the quality and consistency of the helpdesk’s customer service and support. Most of these have to do with the unique challenge of motivating and encouraging students (who often work short shifts and believe they are underpaid), to remain attentive to their tasks and provide a high level of support. Having worked for four years in a helpdesk, under a total of 9 different supervisors, I feel I gained some valuable experience and tips I thought might be helpful to pass along to others who may find themselves in charge of just such a group of student workers.
- Set clear expectations of customer support
Many of the students whose initial qualifications seemingly make them ideal for a job at a helpdesk lack a full understanding of the demanding nature of customer service. These students are often the most technically gifted at the school, and may be downright wizards with a mouse, but experience teaches the helpdesk manager that IT support is a ‘customer service’ job just as much (if not more) as it is a ‘technical support’ job. Often, students may be shy or easily intimidated when dealing with high-powered staff members or college faculty, especially when these callers become irate or demanding. Equally often, they may take a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach to callers, talking down to them and becoming frustrated at their lack of technical expertise.
As a helpdesk manager, it should be of paramount priority to establish clear guidelines of customer service. Some simple things include: always giving your name and stating that you are part of the helpdesk when answering calls; asking, rather than telling, customers to hold, then acknowledging and thanking them for their patience once you get back on the line; remaining calm and patient with callers, whether they fail to understand simple instructions given them over the phone, or even if they become angry. These simple expectations should, as mentioned, be clearly stated in writing in some form of employee handbook (this need not be a weighty tome–just a 2-page handout can do wonders). However, as is the nature of the helpdesk, these expectations should be accompanied by an expectation that the students can have of their supervisor(s):
- Offer a tiered support structure that ends with you
If you expect of your students that they remain calm and friendly with any and all callers, you should also offer them an escape clause, in acknowledgment of the fact that many of them (correctly) feel it is not their place to ‘put their foot down’ or assert that a request is unreasonable to a distinguished faculty member. If your students are maintaining a friendly and professional attitude, you should be prepared to say ‘no’ to a few people that demand the unreasonable. This is completely fair to your students, by allowing them to escalate calls when they can no longer be effective in handling them, and by giving you (the manager) complete freedom to continue to demand consistently polite and friendly customer service from your students.
As an extension, the nature of the helpdesk means that many faculty, staff members, and students will either complement or complain about the helpdesk’s service in the course of a given semester. As a supervisor, you must remember that your student workers often get yelled at unnecessarily, or accused of being rude when they are not. It is therefore imperative to ask the student what happened in the event of a complaint, before reprimanding him or her if necessary, and equally as important to pass along any compliments or commendations sent in to you as a supervisor to your employees. A letter of praise from a high-level administrator can function as a ‘pseudo-cash’ bonus that a supervisor with a highly limited and rigidly controlled budget can still pay out to deserving employees.
- Be flexible, but firm
While this may seem to be somewhat of an oxymoron, it is in fact be the very key to successfully running a happy and responsive helpdesk. Students (and many people of college age) are used to multitasking in a high-tech environment constantly beset my multiple distractions. Their behavior may, at times, seem to indicate poor workmanship, but it is important to understand, as a supervisor, which distractions take away from customer service quality, and which allow students to enjoy perceived freedoms and a high level of job satisfaction, while still providing top-notch service.
Let us take the example of Bill, a student who insists on wearing his iPod during his shift, and listens to music in between calls. Using antiquated methods of determining Bill’s job performance, a supervisor might jump to the conclusion that Bill’s listening to music directly takes away from his ability to serve customers, and might order him to stop using it. However, a closer examination might reveal the complete opposite. Bill works at the phone desk, and takes only phone calls. Therefore, his visual appearance (headphones dangling around neck while on the phone) will not offend the sensibilities of the older faculty and others who stand on ceremony while he helps them. Additionally, Bill’s telephone has a large red light on it that blinks when a call comes in. While observing Bill over the course of a couple of hours, a supervisor might be pleasantly surprised to find that, while Bill did spend approximately half of his shift listening to music, he was quick to respond to calls, and spent a significant amount of time with each caller to insure that they were satisfied, while maintaining a polite tone throughout.
By punishing or limiting Bill for his perceived violation of decorum, a supervisor will more than likely damage, rather than improve, the quality of service within his or her helpdesk. After all, Bill is only making $7.50 an hour for his labor, knows his stuff in terms of computers, and understands that the customer comes first. But that’s no reason not to let the iPod come second, and when Bill is told he can no longer use it, he begins to resent his supervisor, the quality of his customer service begins to slip, and he completes the transition to being another jaded helpdesk burnout, bitter about his low pay and reticent to be patient with or respectful towards callers.
Let us now take a second example: Jane has homework for a class that meets MWF from 1-2. She takes a helpdesk shift at the phones from 11-1 MWF. The supervisor has made clear to the employees that homework may be done at the helpdesk, but only if (like any other activity) it does not interfere with answering phones. One day, the supervisor notices that Jane is being short with callers, providing only half-solutions or temporary workarounds, and repeatedly ending calls quickly. When questioned, Jane admits that she has a paper due in an hour, and has been struggling to finish it. She says she didn’t expect the high volume of calls that had come in that day, and had thought she would have a chance to finish her work.
In this case, the supervisor might feel sympathy towards Jane, or feel that she should be cut some slack. After all, she is a student first, and her education is obviously (and should be) her top priority. However, this approach amounts to nothing more than favoritism which ignores the underlying job performance of the employee. While Bill’s choice of diversion may seem unproductive and silly, he is actually doing a better job at the desk, while compartmentalizing his responsibilities to separate his helpdesk duties from his homework. In the end, while it may seem counter-intuitive, it is Jane who should be warned about her behavior, not Bill.
Much of IT work these days consists of ‘working to the job.’ In other words, if it’s busy, you might run around for 11 straight hours, but if its dead, you might have 6 hours of surfing the ‘net in store for you. It is unfair to think that students (many of them IT or computer science majors) should be asked not to do the same. Admittedly, they are expected to maintain a certain set of hours, and must be there, regardless of whether it is busy or not. However, while they are on duty, they should be held to a standard of how well they are providing support, not whether or not they appear outwardly distraction-free.
By expecting a lot out of your student employees, you will instill in them a feeling of pride in their work. If you praise them for spending the time with a particularly confused caller to get their computer working again, you should feel no hesitation in telling them when their work does not meet expectations. Assuming that, as students, they are not capable of doing better is deleterious to the helpdesk workers, the callers, and ultimately, the supervisor as well.
Since IT helpdesks in colleges and universities cannot offer their student employees the big carrot of high pay (which seems to be the main strategy for keeping on skilled employees in the professional world), managers must become in-tune with their employees in order to keep morale high, and the quality of service consistently superlative. At times, this means making concessions that appear to be significant, but in fact are merely cosmetic, and at times it means putting one’s foot down and firing a repeatedly rude or unresponsive employee, even if he or she has all the technical experience in the world. It is not an easy balance, but if achieved, it can result in a smoothly-running helpdesk that becomes that pride and joy of any university’s IT department.